After the win over Plymouth, fans engaged in the kind of complex maths that would make Rachel Riley giddy. We’d set the cat among the pigeons with our run, but teams had games in hand, but those in the strongest position had the hardest run-in. But, but, but…
As the week progressed, things became clearer although nothing had changed for us; we needed to beat Shrewsbury.
I joined the social media boycott to protest about online abuse, although it was a late decision, I hadn’t realised how absolute it was going to be until after it started. I don’t suppose anyone will change their behaviour because of me; but to break the line seemed like it would undermine the point being made.
I doubt that most online abusers are fully paid-up eugenicists. To most who do it; it’s a way of venting anger or gaining social capital through the likes and retweets that tend to reward extremes. It’s the equivalent of a teenager attracting a girl’s attention by kicking a ball in her face. The precise nature of the abuse is not relevant just so long as it has impact. It’s not so much that these people are racists, it’s more they don’t care about the impact of racism. With social media, there’s no consequence of stepping over that line, if a line existed in the form of bans or prosecution, the abuse would reduce significantly and quickly. These aren’t victimless crimes; social media companies have a responsibility to change the rules of the game. If not them, then the government needs to step in.
I logged on to the eerie silence of Twitter twenty minutes before kick-off, casually opened iFollow and got a jaunty ‘500 error’ with two Adidas Telstar footballs where the zeros should be. It made me more angry that they trivialised their error with the use of a 45 year old football design, albeit a classic. Others were struggling too. I have an FM radio somewhere in my shed and another in my car, but otherwise no access to Radio Oxford’s commentary; in a fully connected world, I was drifting in a vacuum.
The feeling reminded me of those end-of-season away games where the hosts under-estimate our support; Woking in 2009 or Crewe in 1996. Post-Hillsborough, these are rare and special things. The authorities are rightly sensitive and quick to make big games all-ticket. The home club has to be winding their season down, while the away team need to be on a stealthy mission that nobody beyond the club itself has noticed.
Metaphorically, the iFollow lockout meant we were queued up outside the away end, growing increasingly concerned that we weren’t getting in for this crucial game. It’s every man for themselves, some continue to queue, there are rumours about other turnstiles opening, others chance their arm, trying different routes in. On Twitter, someone logged on via Shrewsbury’s iFollow – it was like getting in the home end. The equation on the pitch may have been simple, but the chaos was growing.
There’s a thrill in those games, a lawlessness; fate and ingenuity take over; senses heighten; the game kicks off and you’re split between your mission to get in and the need to follow the game. Somehow, the combination of a broken iFollow and the social media blackout – plus my lack of available outdated technology – meant I had to sense the game rather than follow it, keep persevering, but not take my eye off the action.
We scored early; I was still trying to find a digital turnstile to let me in. The few Twitter comments about the goal were like the slightly muted roar coming from one direction of the ground synonymous with an away goal. They equalised, then led; I was once stuck outside St Andrew’s during a promotion decider against Birmingham City in 1994. From the sounds coming from the Oxford end, we were doing well, but they scored and the 20,000+ Birmingham fans engulfed the noise we were making. Shrewsbury’s goals gave me that feeling; the bubble bursting.
Finally, half-an-hour in, a cyber steward opened a side gate and I was in. I was still trying to orientate myself as half-time came – the equivalent of wanting to find my seat but having to stand on a step and not catch the eye of a steward.
Steve Kinniburgh ripped into the team, I don’t know whether it was justified from a performance perspective, but the reality is that successful teams cut through chaos, blank it out, compartmentalise their ability and let it flow. If they play, he said, we win. The big question was whether they could find clarity through the fog of war. If you can’t do that, your destiny, individually and collectively, is to play in the lower leagues. It’s that stark.
As if they’d heard that, the equaliser was a goal of precision and incision that cut through the chaos and context. It was beautiful in its simplicity; short, simple passes, each move showing patience and progress. The kind goal that makes you wonder why they don’t just do it all the time. Football is mentally challenging, physicality and technique is fundamental, mental agility and discipline is where games are won and lost.
The winner from Dan Agyei was another example of a player taking responsibility for his destiny. In the past, Agyei’s been an instinctive player; games happened to him. If a ball was available, he’d play, but he was passive and could become marginalised if it didn’t run for him. In recent months he’s changed, when Sam Winnall’s knock down didn’t quite fall for him, Agyei went looking for the ball, taking responsibility for his performance and that of his team. He wanted it and, even with his back to goal, wasn’t going to be denied.
Even at the death, Jack Stevens was all-in committed to taking the three points with two wonderful saves. Clarity, focus, commitment, victory. Hope burns eternal.
The mysteries of the season continue to reveal themselves. I still marvel at the genius of a system where everything is still to be decided in the last of forty-six games. Although the infinite chaos of fans is absent, there are questions about what we’ll do next week, what others will do, whether we can make the play-offs, whether we can win them, whether we can cope in a higher division. Those who prevail will be the ones who navigate through the chaos. What others do now is immaterial, the maths hasn’t changed for weeks; we simply have to win our next game.